Tuesday, August 18, 2015

New Zealand's forgotten fallen

Bob Davies, a former Sergeant-Major of the New Zealand Army (in other words, the army's top non-commissioned officer), delivered this speech on Sunday in Auckland to mark Vietnam Veterans' Day. I'm happy to reproduce it here.

After World War One, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission was formed to establish an appropriate way to discharge the debt of honour each country owed to its fallen.  By the end of World War Two and the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s mandate, 1.7 million fallen were commemorated in 23,000 cemeteries and memorials across 157 countries.  Those who have had the privilege to visit any of these sites cannot but be overawed, not just by the scale of the casualties – for there is surely that - but by the overwhelming dignity and solemnity of the environment that enfolds the earthly remains of those who sacrificed all so that the rest of us may have a future.  While nothing can compensate for such sacrifice, at least their remains are protected in perpetuity as they lie alongside their comrades in peace.  They are our Glorious Dead.

Since New Zealand first sent troops overseas in 1899 to assist the British Empire in its fight against the South African Boers, we have lost 28,923 servicemen and women who were killed in action, died of wounds or who died of a result of illness or accident due to their operational service; service, I shouldn’t need to remind you, which was in pursuit of the government of the day’s international priorities.   It is very difficult to get one’s head around such a statistic so let me help you.  If we laid each of the 28,923 fallen head-to-foot, beginning at the Bombay BP Station on State Highway 1, they would extend to somewhere around the Northcote off-ramp on the other side of the Harbour Bridge. 

Almost, but not quite at the end of that line, you’ll find 32 men; they are our forgotten fallen.  These are men who were killed since World War Two.  They served in South East Asia, in Malaya and in Vietnam.  No longer under the auspices of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, some of these men lie in obscure cemeteries, some in graves which are overgrown or in graves that are very difficult to access.  And because they are not subject to the same rules as those who lie in a Commonwealth War Grave, their resting places are not protected. 

They lie there because their families could not afford to have their bodies returned to New Zealand.  If you visit the National War Memorial at Pukeahu, the Army Memorial Museum in Waiouru, or the Auckland War Memorial Museum, their sacrifice is acknowledged alongside the rest of our fallen, except in their case their resting place is not so glorious.   Their next of kin have grieved no less than any other of the families from other conflicts, but to these families their treatment demonstrates that the country considers theirs to be of a lesser sacrifice as, unlike their forefathers and their sons, successive governments have failed to discharge the debt of honour that the country owes to them.

For some years now, there have been efforts to have these men returned to New Zealand, but without success.  The Minister of Veterans’ Affairs just in May this year stated the Government had no intention to change its policy and repatriate these forgotten fallen, this during the 100th commemorative year and despite a Cabinet paper that concedes the unfairness of their treatment.  He also gave a further reason: that historically soldiers were buried where they fell.  Clearly he is misinformed as none of the fallen lie in Vietnam – and more tellingly – nor do they lie in East Timor, Iraq or in Afghanistan.

With an ironic and questionable sense of timing, the Prime Minister decided this was the year to run a campaign to change the flag, the flag under which these men fell.  Whether this is a good idea or not is not only irrelevant but extraordinarily insensitive and thoughtless if most returned servicemen, those we are supposedly commemorating this year and next, object to it as the RSA informs us they do.

The 2007 Cabinet paper estimated the cost of repatriation of the 32 forgotten fallen to be considerably less than $500,000.  That may have increased somewhat in the years since but whatever its cost today, it will be miniscule in comparison to the $24 million dedicated to changing the flag.

The Prime Minister has made much recently of the importance of New Zealand contributing to ‘The Club’ when once again the Government has placed our young men and women in harm's way to demonstrate our solidarity with it.   On 20 May this year our closest ally in ‘The Club’, Australia, announced in Parliament it was repatriating Australian war dead from Malaysia.  Can we expect the New Zealand Government to again show solidarity by similarly repatriating our forgotten fallen?  Apparently not.

Fellow Vietnam veterans join me today in challenging this Government to return our forgotten fallen to the country for which they have sacrificed all and before the flag is changed.   Let the National Government, the Government that sent us off to our war and that has ignored us since, now make amends.

Lest we forget.